Project managers Robert Lynch of KCI Technologies Inc. (left) and Jeff Robert of the Maryland State Highway Administration worked closely with residents to transform the 1200-foot-long College Creek Bridge into an architectural gateway to state capital Annapolis, Md. To read more about this project, turn to page 30. Photo: David Holloway / Getty Images

No man is an island.

And neither is an infrastructure manager struggling to balance internal resources with community expectations.

Thus the importance of the relationship between public works departments, which are for the most part generalists, and for-profit firms that specialize in architecture, engineering, construction (AEC), or any combination thereof. Our third annual survey of the use of AEC firms by public agencies shows that this partnership continues to play a key role in the ability of infrastructure managers to meet the needs of their communities.

In 2006, 86% of respondents turned to these firms to strategize, conceptualize, design, engineer, and/or build projects ranging from water treatment plants and bridges to urban parks. Of the 15% of respondents who did not use an AEC firm, half plan to enlist one in the next six months.

What Departments Want

To learn more about the relationship between public works departments and AEC firms, we gathered data in two ways.

First, we asked the firms themselves about their services and the scope of their work.This year's list features 50 largest firms in terms of revenue generated from public projects. Though not comprehensive (firms that are in the process of being acquired, for example, could not provide information), this chart provides a solid starting point for researching potential partners.

Then we asked PUBLICWORKS readers about their relationship with these firms, and learned that in 2006:

  • More than half of respondents used AEC firms for design services.
  • 17% contracted with firms to build.
  • Few sought AEC firms to operate or own these facilities.
  • None employed firms to maintain the project once completed.
  • As for the type of infrastructure that respondents asked AEC firms to work on:

  • 52%—wastewater and storm-water treatment projects
  • 49%—road and bridge construction
  • 43%—surveying, mapping, and GIS
  • 40%—pipeline construction/ rehabilitation
  • 29%—watersheds and water resources
  • 28%—landscape architecture/ park design
  • 26%—water treatment
  • 25%—traffic control
  • 16%—maintenance of public buildings
  • 14%—municipal solid waste
  • 11%—asset management
  • Less than 10% each—hazardous waste collection and disposal, homeland security, and city vehicle maintenance.

Although 60% of respondents don't care if the firm is local or not, many stay with the tried and true.

“People stay with the same firm if they do good work,” says Tom Kovachevich, public works director of Bayfield, Wis. When Bayfield and Pikes Bay Sanitary District teamed to create the Greater Bayfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, they chose an AEC firm they'd worked with before (see "Lead by Example").